Year in Review 2020: Nature

Spanning across new national parks, devastating mudslides, and ambitious climate goals, here’s a summary of Iceland’s biggest nature news stories of 2020.

National Parks and Nature Conservation

Several of Iceland’s popular natural areas were officially protected this year by the Ministry for the Environment, including the Geysir area and Goðafoss waterfall in North Iceland. Other big conservation projects are in the works: In the Westfjords, Dynjandi waterfall was given to the state as a gift and a national park is to be established around it. Snæfellsnes National Park is also set to be expanded.

Possibly the biggest nature story of the year is the proposal to make Iceland’s Central Highland into Europe’s largest national park, covering around 30% of Iceland. This would also make it the national park that represents the highest percentage of the total area of any country, with over 40,000 km² of the total 103,000 km² surface area of Iceland. A bill outlining the park’s establishment was introduced in Parliament by Iceland’s Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson on November 30. However, it is still being hotly debated in parliament and has yet to be passed. Learn more about the proposed Highland National Park.

Magma and Earthquakes in Southwest Iceland

In late January, Icelandic authorities declared a state of uncertainty due to possible magma accumulation a few kilometres west of Þorbjörn mountain. Land rise and earthquake swarms were detected in the area, suggesting magma was accumulating underground. Nearby residents prepared for a possible eruption, though authorities stated it was more likely the activity would calm without one, and that has indeed been the case. Land rise under the mountain stopped by early May, though experts say there is an “active long-term process” ongoing in the area and the possibility of renewed activity cannot be discounted.

Storms and Avalanches

Three large avalanches swept across the Westfjords in January, hitting Flateyri and Súgandafjörður. Their timing was chilling: they occurred one day before the 25th anniversary of a deadly avalanche in the same area that killed 14. Though no one was killed, the avalanches caused property damage and one 13-year-old girl was rescued after being buried in snow for half an hour. Iceland Review interviewed photographer Ragnar Axelsson, who witnessed and captured on film the aftermath of both the 1995 and 2020 events.

No Icelandic winter passes without at least one winter storm. Extreme weather on Valentine’s Day caused travel disruptions, power outages, and property damage. ICE-SAR teams across the country responded to nearly 800 calls in a single day due to the storm.

Resource Extraction

While Iceland’s government protected many natural areas this year, others may soon be used for new resource extraction projects. A large area in South Iceland containing historic site Hjörleifshöfði was sold to a sand mining company while one Canadian mining company acquired all the rights to gold mining in Iceland. St-Georges Eco-Mining hopes to use robots and geothermal energy to mine “eco-friendly” gold on the island.

Climate Goals

In December 2020, Iceland’s government revised its climate goals, stating it would now aim for a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030, rather than 40% as was decided at the beginning of the current government’s term. The revised policy means Iceland’s greenhouse gas emissions are expected to be 55% lower in 2030 than they were in 1990. Iceland plans to become carbon neutral by 2040. Though it seems to be acting on climate goals now, Iceland’s Environment Minister stated in November that the country could owe billions due to not fulfilling its previous commitments to the Kyoto protocol.

Seyðisfjörður Mudslides

The year ended on a tragic note for residents of Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland when a series of mudslides destroyed more than a dozen homes and historic buildings in the town. Luckily no fatalities resulted from the catastrophic events, though the town was evacuated and many local families did not get to return to their homes for Christmas. The government has pledged its support in rebuilding the town, though it will likely take months to even assess the extent of the damage.

Iceland’s National Parks Prepare to Welcome Local Tourists This Summer

reykjadalur iceland hveragerði

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected international travel, for the time being, and as a result, more Icelanders will spend their summer vacation travelling domestically. Hákon Ásgeirsson of the Environment Agency of Iceland says park wardens are preparing to welcome local tourists this summer with guided educational hikes in protected areas across the country. Less tourist traffic this spring means areas particularly vulnerable during the thawing season are getting a chance to recover from strain in recent years.

Guided hikes for families and groups

“We are preparing ourselves to give Icelanders a warm welcome this summer,” says Hákon. “The Environment Agency is starting an initiative to have more educational programming in protected areas, so that wardens can welcome Icelanders and also offer them educational hikes tailored to families and different groups.”

The programme is currently in the works with more specifics to be announced in mid-May, says Hákon. “There will be regular programming all through the summer in protected areas across the whole country.”

With less traffic, soil and vegetation recover

The Road and Coastal Administration has begun its yearly spring closures of highland roads in order to protect both roadways and budding vegetation. Spring is the most challenging season in vulnerable areas, explains Hákon, as soil is thawing, making it waterlogged and vulnerable to damage from cars and foot traffic. Fjaðrágljúfur canyon in South Iceland is one area where increased traffic has led to closures in recent years. “There is almost no traffic at the moment in Fjaðrárgljúfur, so it will likely not need to be closed. There is so little traffic that it is recovering naturally.”

It’s a recovery that could be seen in many areas across Iceland, if international travel restrictions continue. “There will likely be less pressure on certain areas from tourists.”

Proposal for Expanded Highland Protections Protested

Energy companies and some local municipalities are hotly contesting a new proposal to expand environmental protections within the Icelandic highlands, RÚV reports. Per a proposal put forth by the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, a new and expanded national park would include Vatnajökull National Park – already the largest national park in Western Europe – as well as 85% of the central highlands.

The boundaries for the new national park were suggested by a bipartisan committee appointed by the ministry in April 2018. The committee, which included MPs from all of the sitting parties in Alþingi as well as representatives from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities, maintains that expanding the boundaries of the protected area would not negatively impact Vatnajökull National Park’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The proposal has since been opened for public comment, but will only remain so for the next two weeks, or until August 13.

Although the Association of Local Authorities has been part of the proposal process, however, many municipalities whose boundaries fall within the proposed national park feel that they were not appropriately consulted.

Ásta Stefánsdóttir, head of the district council of Bláskógabyggð in West Iceland says that it was the committee’s job to make proposals about the new national park, not to specifically evaluate the pros and cons of whether this should be done at all. Bláskógabyggð feels that this evaluation has yet to be done and that the current proposal represents an encroachment on the zoning power of local municipalities.

“There are large areas within the highlands that are within Bláskógabyggð and farmers and residents have put a lot of work into reclaiming the land, for instance, in marking riding trails and guiding traffic there, i.e. ensuring that people don’t enter sensitive areas and the like. People are only concerned because if there is some kind of centralised agency, some kind of government agency, which oversees this, that that will somewhat undercut all this volunteer work that people have done.”

Energy companies have also expressed opposition to the proposal. Samorka, the federation of energy and utility companies in Iceland, says that under the new protections, that all new energy generation and transmission would be prohibited in almost half of the country, making current laws about energy protection irrelevant.

For its part, Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland, says that it is necessary that all of its power plants remain outside of protected areas and says that the utilisation of energy resources in the highlands have considerable economic significance for the country overall. The renewable energy produced in the highlands, it says, is the foundation of the nation’s economy and overall quality of life today.

Fined 1.4 Million for Off-Road Driving

A group of 25 foreign tourists were fined ISK 1.4 million ($13,000/€11,000) for off-road driving by Jökulsá river and in a protected area by Grafalönd on the road to Askja caldera, RÚV reports. On one of the sites, damage covers an area of six hectares (15 acres). Authorities say it will take years for the marks to fade.

Off-road driving is illegal in Iceland due to the fragility of the sub-arctic environment. Nevertheless, many off-road driving incidents have been reported this summer.

Stefanía Ragnarsdóttir, a land warden in Vatnajökull National Park, says it should be possible to better inform travellers of driving laws and their environmental responsibility. “I mean we are living on an island. You come here by boat or plane so it should be possible to reach you and this is a lot of responsibility that we need to take on much better,” Stefanía remarked. “This maybe lies most with car rental companies. They need to really step up.”

Icelandic Travel Industry Protests Fee Hikes at National Parks

The Icelandic Travel Industry Association is protesting increased fees at both the Vatnajökull and Þingvellir National Parks, RÚV reports. According to a press release issued by the association, Vatnajökull National Park announced yesterday a service increase of 80%. Shortly thereafter, a service fee increase was also announced at Þingvellir.

The association asserts that the service fee increases were made without warning and that they show a lack of understanding of the working environment and market conditions that tourism service providers must contend with. They also argue that those particularly affected by the service fee changes were not consulted prior to the increases taking effect.

The Icelandic Travel Industry Association is then demanding that the fee hikes be rescinded and that the government leads a focused discussion on tourism-related tariffs, as was previously agreed.